David Howarth is an old friend, one of the smarter lawyers I know, and definitely one of the smartest politicians around (he’s a Reader in Law at Cambridge and Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge). David is currently the campaign manager for one of the two leading candidates in the Liberal Democrat leadership election.
So please do not dismiss what follows as some weird backbench conspiracy stuff. And keep in mind that this bill has already had its second reading, so it’s one step away from law (the vote follows the third reading): Who wants the Abolition of Parliament Bill is an alarm by a serious person:
The boring title of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill hides an astonishing proposal. It gives ministers power to alter any law passed by Parliament. The only limitations are that new crimes cannot be created if the penalty is greater than two years in prison and that it cannot increase taxation. But any other law can be changed, no matter how important. All ministers will have to do is propose an order, wait a few weeks and, voilà, the law is changed.
For ministers the advantages are obvious: no more tedious debates in which they have to answer awkward questions. Instead of a full days debate on the principle of the proposal, detailed line-by-line examination in committee, a second chance at specific amendment in the Commons and a final debate and vote, ministers will have to face at most a short debate in a committee and a one-and-a-half hour debate on the floor. Frequently the Government will face less than that. No amendments will be allowed. The legislative process will be reduced to a game of take-it-or-leave-it.
The Bill replaces an existing law that allows ministers to relieve regulatory burdens. Business was enthusiastic about that principle and the Government seems to have convinced the business lobby that the latest Bill is just a new, improved version. What makes the new law different, however, is not only that it allows the Government to create extra regulation, including new crimes, but also that it allows ministers to change the structure of government itself. There might be business people so attached to the notion of efficiency and so ignorant or scornful of the principles of democracy that they find such a proposition attractive. Ordinary citizens should find it alarming.
Any body created by statute, including local authorities, the courts and even companies, might find themselves reorganised or even abolished. Since the powers of the House of Lords are defined in Acts of Parliament, even they are subject to the Bill.
Looking back at last weeks business in the Commons, the Bill makes a mockery of the decisions MPs took. Carrying ID cards could be made compulsory, smoking in ones own home could be outlawed and the definition of terrorism altered to make ordinary political protest punishable by life imprisonment. Nor will the Human Rights Act save us since the Bill makes no exception for it.
The Bill, bizarrely, even applies to itself, so that ministers could propose orders to remove the limitations about two-year sentences and taxation. It also includes a few desultory questions (along the lines of am I satisfied that I am doing the right thing?) that ministers have to ask themselves before proceeding, all drafted subjectively so that court challenges will fail, no matter how preposterous the ministers answer. Even these questions can be removed using the Bills own procedure. Indeed, at its most extreme, in a manoeuvre akin to a legislative Indian rope trick, ministers could use it to transfer all legislative power permanently to themselves.